|CHRISTOPHER N. GEARY
||PROFILE OF A MARTIAL ARTS MASTER
One of the most memorable moments in my life personally and as a martial artist and teacher took place at the 50th Anniversary Celebration for Hanshi Lou Angel, in Joplin, Missouri in 2004. A seminar had just ended, and everyone was standing around, so I walked over to Shihan Steiner and said, “Go up on the stage and give a Kempo Seminar.” He looked at me with surprise and then went up to do it. Everything went great; he taught very well. After some time had passed, he introduced me and I showed everyone how this and that was done (mainly on speed striking drills) on the stage in front of about two hundred people. Then Jeff Speakman (famous for starring in martial art movies demonstrating the art of Kenpo Karate) walked in making his “grand entrance” and interrupting Steiner’s seminar. Speakman got up on the stage to teach. Well, after about an hour or two of filming Speakman’s seminar and being on my feet for about three hours or so, I decided to sit down for a minute with the people who were watching the seminar.
I sat down, and a couple of minutes later this person leaned over to me and said in a sincere and respectful tone of voice, “I just wanted to let you know that if I had a choice between you and Speakman to train me, it would be you. I think that you are a better teacher than he is, and I think that you move better than he does.” I sat there dumbfounded, thinking, what on earth do I say in response to that? I mean, Speakman has been training in the martial arts since I was seven years old, has made about a dozen movies and most everyone who has been studying the martial arts has heard of or has seen this guy on the big screen. A couple of weeks later, Steiner received a certificate from Hanshi Angel for doing a seminar. I received one of the most exhilarating moments in my life—one that I shall never forget.
The light switch method
Since I began teaching in June 1994, I have brought the art of Kempo Karate to thousands of people in the Omaha metro area, including police officers, doctors, and three mayors. My students have included the children of Kelly Smith (former Mrs. Nebraska 2000), and I have appeared on local television shows. Throughout the years that I have been teaching Kempo, people have told me, “My child is learning so fast in your school, I just can’t believe it.” When I train my students, I try to give them the tools to find what they are looking for so that they can feel complete and content with themselves and others. One of the most important things I teach them is to always be prepared for anything that might come their way, in and out of the martial arts. I believe your training should equip you to handle the worst possible thing that you could ever imagine happening to you. This doesn’t have to be something physical; it can be mental as well.
When I am teaching my students, I use a method that can help them reach a balance in their training and in their lives. I call it the “light switch” method, and it goes like this: when you flip the switch to “on,” then it’s time for war. “War” could mean training in the school, paying attention in class and listening to your instructor. It could mean practicing your techniques, not just going through the movements but also having the same mental attitude you would have if you were really in a situation where someone came at you and was trying to hurt you in some manner. It means controlling your mind, body, and spirit—not in some Asian mystical way but having the self-control to do what needs to be done, in the American way. When the switch is turned to “on,” you need to be prepared to paint the walls (metaphorically) with blood, whether it is from you or your opponents.
Balance is needed, however, and that’s where the “off” switch comes in. When the switch is flipped to “off,” it is time to enjoy the pleasures of life with a higher level of self-confidence that comes from knowing you can handle whatever comes your way. This feeling of capability and completeness gives you the courage to try new things in areas beyond the martial arts, such as painting, playing a musical instrument, or writing poetry. I tell my students that you can be and do anything you wish, but you must be physically and mentally ready to achieve the goals that you set for yourself. Some are prepared and some are not.
The importance of self-discipline
One of the key elements of success in the martial arts and life in general is self-discipline. Some people place a high value on this quality, like the parents who posted the following guestbook entry on my web site:
We would like to thank you and your staff for the unique learning environment you provide to our son and the other children.
Discipline and dedication are skills rarely taught in childhood elective pursuits, yet these are the abilities that we draw deeply from throughout our lives.
We are grateful that we have found a place that will not only teach our son self-defense, but will also reinforce our goals of raising a confident, disciplined, and self-reliant son.
We appreciate your patience and dedication.
Ken and Pam Kilzer
Sadly, there are many other parents who do not see the importance of self-discipline, and their kids reflect the same superficial attitudes. For example, I had a student who was not willing to put forth the effort needed to advance in the martial arts. This young girl had been in my school for about three years. I remember her parents asking me, “When is she going to get her next belt?” This was towards the last six months or so before she left my school. This young girl was nowhere close to getting her next belt. In fact, she was starting to forget what she had already been taught. So one day I thought that I would prove a point to her mom who was watching class that day, but I wanted to do it in a subtle way. I told the class, “If you know this or that, go over here or there in different groups to warm up.” This girl, who should have known technique that was taught to her years ago, stood there looking lost and confused, not knowing which group to go to. The mom said to her daughter, “You know that—go over there in that group.”
Some people think that just because they pay for class and show up, they should be promoted. This family had told me, after their daughter had been in the school for about a year, that she would be training with me until she was a third-degree black belt, “no matter what.” This student ended up making it halfway to her black belt before her parents allowed her to give up. These people never went out of their way to help the school; their attitude was always “give me this…give me that.” I remember asking the children what they wanted to be when they grew up, as I often do so they may begin to use mental tools to prepare to get what they want in life. This girl told me that she wanted to be an artist (painter). Her dad looked over towards her with a Mr.-Know-It-All grin on his face and said, “Be an architect; it would be much more practical.”
I believe that studying the martial arts or anything that you do should not consume your every moment. The switch has to be flipped to “off” sometimes. A good martial arts master should give you the confidence to try other things that you would not normally try or think of doing. One of the nice things about the martial arts is that when you are taught by a good teacher, your training will give you the proper balance and discipline to overcome obstacles, make wise decisions, and deal with life’s challenges. Self-discipline is the critical element here; its presence or absence will make or break you in the end.
Separating the good from the bad
“Professor Geary has never lied to me, dodged a question, tricked me or bullied me into anything. He’s always been direct and honest about everything: the KGS BBS, my training, his training, his schools, etc. He is a direct, no-nonsense guy who speaks his mind. I’ve known many men who built their own businesses from nothing, and he shares with them the attributes that led to their success: confidence, motivation, intelligence, and insight. I am happy to be part of his organization, and I have confidence that my training will be effective when I need it. His understanding of the forms at many levels is deep; his ability to execute them is likewise impressive.”
There are many good martial art schools, instructors, and organizations out there, but there are ten times as many that will be happy to take your money and give you worthless papers. I always advise people to be very careful of different organizations that they are thinking of joining, including the ones that are run by the so-called “Grandmasters” who have been around for a while. A good instructor will be the key not only to providing knowledge but to helping you understand the value of what you learning. In the martial arts, grandmasters have friends that promote each other from other organizations. They promote each other over and over and back and forth again. A group of peers will get together and promote each other so that they can make more money from martial artists who are just trying to do some good for themselves and their students. Many of these so-called grandmasters will say, “Well, I am a tenth-degree black belt and I have been around,” but they have their rank only because someone has given it to them and that person received their rank from someone who may not have been qualified to give it.
Over the years I have met martial arts instructors who set a bad example for their students. For example, they will preach about the importance of physical fitness and then let their bodies become grossly overweight because they don’t have the self-discipline to push themselves away from the table. They will talk about the importance of respecting others, and then they’ll show up an hour late to teach a scheduled seminar, making it clear that they have no respect for anyone else’s time. And, as I mentioned, there are martial artists who are happy to take people’s money without giving them anything of value in return. They will lie, cheat, and steal to get what they want: money or power. In my mind, these people serve as “bad examples” who have shaped my identity by showing me exactly what kind of person I would never want to become.
On a positive note, there are still martial artists around who have high standards. One of these is my advisor, Hanshi Lou Angel. Another is Soke Burdine, who also recognized me as a seventh-degree black belt with the title of Professor. Both of these men are good, honest people who truly care about their students and the development of the martial arts. Soke Burdine recognized me with rank and title and asked for nothing in return. He did it simply for the good of my students and the future of the martial arts.
Kids reflect their parents
“Christopher’s teaching method is pretty structured, but that’s one of the reasons we enrolled both of our kids in his school. There are Wednesday nights when both kids don’t want to go to class because they’d rather play outside with their friends, but afterwards they’re always glad they went.
Our son gets distracted easily, but I’ve seen an improvement in his ability to concentrate during the years that he has been taking karate. He’s proud of what he’s accomplished. One time he got to be an assistant during class, and it really made his night. He was so pleased.”
Parents have a major influence on their children. I have found that even if I don’t have a chance to talk with a child’s parents, I can get a pretty good picture of what the parents are like just by spending time with their kids.
Some parents feel the need to cushion their kids from any kind of disappointment or criticism. They get upset when I let their son or daughter know that they’re not working as hard as they could. But what happens when these kids go out in the real world and try to hold down a job? They won’t be able to handle criticism and learn from it. As an instructor, I feel it is my duty to prepare my students for whatever life will dish out to them. They need to learn how to handle situations and make the right decisions. I believe that if you don’t equip kids with the skills and judgment they need to survive, you’re not doing them any favors. One of the responsibilities of a teacher is to hold students accountable when they don’t put forth enough effort to achieve their potential.
Maid-Rite* in Marshalltown Iowa
I believe that being a parent means looking out for your kids and trying to help them have some peace of mind. This can take many different forms. When I was very young, there were some bullies who lived down the street from me. I believe that they were brothers. One day my family was in the alley getting ready to take our car out of the garage, and I told my dad (who was raised in Marshalltown, Iowa) that the guys who had been picking on me were down at the end of the alley sitting on their bikes. They were much older than I was—these two guys were in high school and I was in elementary school—and my dad could see from the expression on my face that I was tired of being picked on and they were just wearing me down. He went into the garage, got out his bike, and rode around the block to come up behind the two bullies. He rode up behind them quietly, stopped and put one hand on each of their heads and slammed their heads together hard. Then he yelled at them and told them to stop picking on his son. A couple of weeks later, these guys told me that I needed my dad to fight for me, and they said they would be seeing me around. They never bothered me again. I will always remember how my dad handled the situation.
Recently I had a student whose father also had been raised in Marshalltown, Iowa, the same town where my dad grew up. This family had moved from New York City to Omaha, and one day the dad came to my school on a Saturday morning and signed up his daughter for classes. He said she had studied martial arts in New York City, but he and his wife thought that their daughter hadn’t learned much because the school was not very well organized. He told me that his wife would be in the following week to bring their daughter to class and to pay for the first month of tuition. On the first day of class, this lady came storming into my office, talking very fast in a rude tone of voice. She announced, “Look, my husband signed up my daughter for classes but I’m not going to pay for anything until she tries class to see if this is something that she wants to do.” After the class was over, the mom said that she was impressed with my school and that it was much better than the one in New York.
About five months went by, and during this time the mom had been in the school to observe her daughter’s class maybe four times. This girl had not progressed beyond white belt, probably because she never practiced the techniques at home. The girl’s mom was also very demanding. She would often call or e-mail me to change her daughter’s class time for one reason or another. For example, even though her daughter’s class time was Tuesday and Thursday, she would sign her daughter up for soccer on Thursday nights and then ask me to let her daughter attend class on Wednesdays. During the final class that she would end up coming to, this girl was working on forms and footwork. (Forms are movements against imaginary attackers to develop balance and coordination.) She had learned the movements in the last couple of classes, but she wasn’t paying attention. I pointed this out, criticizing the student for not working up to her full potential. The mom became upset because I was criticizing her daughter. At the same time, this woman’s toddler son was screaming and flicking the overhead lights of the school on and off while sitting on his mother’s lap. (It wasn’t the first time he had done this.) It was obvious to me that this mom had no control over her children. Her husband’s job took him out of town about 75 percent of the time, which meant that his wife had most of the responsibility for raising their two children.
I think the dad knew that discipline was lacking at home. At our first meeting, he told me that he wanted his daughter to study the martial arts because he believed it would help her develop better self-discipline and more confidence. Without support and encouragement from both parents, however, this student ended up being embarrassed in front of her classmates, going nowhere in her training, and leaving the school. Practicing techniques outside the school is very important, but many parents don’t seem to realize this. It’s just like learning to play an instrument—you have to practice at home. A karate school is not a day care, even though some families seem to view it in that manner. I spend countless hours pouring my heart and soul into my students, but many throughout the years could have been much more productive if they had only studied their techniques more outside of the school, thereby becoming more proficient in their abilities.
*You may have heard of a restaurant called “Maid-Rite” in Marshalltown, IA, that is famous for its “loose meat” sandwiches (similar to sloppy joes). The title of this section is my own little play on words, because I believe that my dad and my student’s dad were both “made right” in Marshalltown, IA. Both of these dads were truly trying to do the right thing for their kids and help them feel good about themselves.